Do It Yourself Town Square: Dallas 2010

July 26, 2013 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Urban living activists in Dallas took matters into their own hands, and with a little paint, a little enthusiasm, and some solid urban lifestyle principles transformed a horrible overexposed public intersection into an awesome funky, well used public thoroughfare. "Crowd Sourced Place Making" is a way to transform our abandoned neighborhood town squares without having to ask for public monies, wait on government contractors or do anything as stupid as tear up all the streets for a year at a time, virtually guaranteeing the failure of all the businesses. Check out these very cool videos. Oh, and by the wyy... Dallas was so impressed they decided to make it permanent.

What exactly is crowdsourced placemaking?

Crowdsourcing - “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.“

Placemaking - The best definition comes from a collection of definitions at Project for Public Spaces, such as “Placemaking is the art of creating public ‘places of the soul,‘ that uplift and help us connect to each other.“ Also, the book Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities, defines it as “the way in which all human beings transform the places they find themselves into the places where they live.“

So combining these definitions, one gets…

Crowdsourced placemaking - the act of taking development traditionally performed by real estate conglomerates and outsourcing it to a large, undefined group of people in the form of an open call, to transform the places we find ourselves into the places where we live, as ‘places of the soul’ that uplift and help us connect to each other.

Placemaking is not just the act of building or fixing up a space, but a whole process that fosters the creation of vital public destinations: the kind of places where people feel their strong and real role in their community---it comes along with a commitment to making things better. Simply put, creating a Community of Place capitalizes on local assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being. This process is essential–even sacred–to people who truly care about the places in their lives.

Creating a Community of Place (or Placemaking) begins small scale.
When you focus on place, you do everything differently

Terrible Street in the Dallas Project

Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy. It takes root when people begin expressing needs and desires about places in their lives, even if there is not yet a clearly defined plan of action. The basic desire to unite people around a larger vision for an area is often present long before the word “Placemaking” is ever mentioned. Once the term is introduced, however, it enables people to realize just how inspiring their collective vision can be, and allows them to look with fresh eyes at the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings. It sparks an exciting re-examination of everyday settings and experiences in our lives.

Same Street, plus color, and most importantly, people.

Unfortunately the way our public process is developed today has become so institutionalized (read, soulcrushing) that the people who actually have to live in an area seldom get to voice ideas and aspirations about the places they inhabit. Do it Yourself Placemaking breaks through this by showing planners, designers, and engineers how to move beyond their habit of looking at communities through the narrow lens of single-minded goals or rigid professional disciplines. The first step is listening to best experts in the field—the people who live, work and play in a place.

Experience has shown us that when developers and planners welcome as much grassroots involvement as possible, they spare themselves a lot of headaches. Common problems like traffic-dominated streets, little-used parks, and isolated, underperforming development projects can be avoided by embracing the Placemaking perspective that views a place in its entirety, rather than zeroing in on isolated fragments of the whole.

The Better Block Project caused the City of Dallas to make scenes like this permanent.

Jacksonville has so many amazing communities of place that were built by the Do It Yourself Process.  San Marco was developed by exactly this kind of process back when Phyllis Lockwood, John Currington, the Schneiders came together and Sarah Crooks launched a guerrilla gardening project on the fountain, cleaning out the dead rats, painting flowers, and planting seeds in the basin.

Five Points and the Springfield Theatre District did the same thing.

Look around you.  The prefabricated, corporately designed places never last for long.  The neighborhoods that became true communities of Place are the ones that endure, because of the passion and energy that went into them.

Here is the Dallas Observer's front page article about the success of the project.

When Jason Roberts first introduced the Better Block Block project in late March, he did so with the caveat that it was "a 'living block' art installation" intended to prove it's possible to turn a screwed-up Oak Cliff intersection zoned "light industrial" into something livable and walkable. But three months later, after a successful two-day event in April that garnered the attention of city officials and council member Delia Jasso, that temporary Dallas City Code eff-you is awfully close to becoming a very permanent reality where W. 7th Street, N. Tyler Street and Kings Highway meet.

Roberts tells Unfair Park today that the city's Public Works and Transportation department has given Roberts and the quality-of-life nonprofit Go Oak Cliff the OK to shut down that stretch of Kings Highway permanently in order to create a plaza space. Roberts points to San Francisco's Pavement to Parks project, and New York City's Plaza Program, as proof such a thing is possible. Because if it can make it there, it can make it anywhere. Right?

"There's not a plaza space there, a place for people to sit down and relax," Robert says. "In Dallas there are no parks with retail surrounding them, so we want to create a plaza and take off from what San Francisco and New York have done. We've talked to Delia Jasso about it, and she's looking for some potential finds, and we've met with Public Works as well, and they're trying to see if there's potential. They said it looks good and that we need to flesh out more of a design and find inexpensive adaptive products. Like, in San Francisco, they used painted tree trunks to lay out and create barriers. So we're looking to paint the street and create a series of bollards to demarcate the space and bring in mobile food vendors. Delia's working with us to see how we can get utilities to the food carts and create people spaces."

Roberts says he has the go-head to shut down the plaza right now, if he wants. Initially, he says, the closure will be for three months -- a trial period to see if it works according to plan. But he says Go Oak Cliff will wait till September, when it's not as hot.

"We don't wanna do it in the heat of the summer, because it would be looked at as a failure -- no one will use the space in August," he says. "So we'll close it down in September and augment these ideas and monitor the effect: Is there positive economic effect? A negative effect on traffic, which we don't anticipate? And then we'll work with the city to make it permanent."

Roberts says Dallas will not maintain the plaza -- that'll be all Go Oak Cliff, whose motto, you will recall, is the opposite of Dallas's. The mobile food vendors will provide a source of revenue necessary for its upkeep, but, ultimately, says Roberts, it should be fairly self-sustaining -- a sort of Bishop Arts District in between, well, Bishop Arts and The Kessler.

"Go Oak Cliff would maintain it so it's not a burden on the city," Roberts says. "We're trying to keep everything simple in the space and allow for mobile food carts to come in as a source of revenue to maintain the area. But it also gives people a reason to stay, and it brings online the businesses on Davis, these small shops with high turnover rates. It allows the community places to walk, hang out, relax. Right now, there's not a reason to stay -- people come down in their cars, do their shopping at one or two places, and leave. But further down Davis those businesses need more incentivizers to get people to stay. We're trying to think about this holistically as a corridor. ...

"And the city likes it. Taking away streets is a foreign concept to Public Works. But as we forwarded them links to some of the work being done in San Francisco and New York, they did catch on. The Better Block block thing, city staff still talks about it. We thought of it as a renegade thing to show we want to bring awareness to the problems in creating a walkaboe city. And city officialss came by and now say, 'You've got some good points. What else do you have in mind?' None of us expected to be in the position of, 'Oh, people are serious about putting these into play.' City staff does the work at City Hall, and they're busy with fixing water lines, stoplights and intersections with high crash rates. So to come to them and say, 'We've got a solution,' that's a foreign thing."

Check out the amazing updates from Better Block's website:

Due to the incredible success of our “Better Block” event, we thought we’d outline for everyone the steps we took to pull the entire effort off. Below are some of the key elements needed:

- Identify a location with a block of buildings that has a good pedestrian form, but lacks a complete street. Typically pre-war built areas, or former streetcar intersections.

- Assemble team of grassroots community activists, artists, and DIY’ers. If possible, work with existing area non-profit leaders or organizers (Community Gardens groups, local volunteer corps, etc.)

- Latch the Better Block to an existing event, such as an art crawl, ciclovia, fun run, et cetera.

- Work with area property owners to allow access to vacant spaces for a weekend. We pitched the event as a giant “art installation”, so the vacant spaces become defacto art galleries. Our property owners were excited to freely allow access because we were actively marketing their properties. Also, immediately following our original better block, these vacant spaces were leased.

- Create groups to develop and install temporary “pop-up” businesses to show the potential for what could be if the street had a more inviting presence. Also, try and keep in mind all users (young, old, et cetera). We installed a cafe with outdoor seating to highlight the ability to re-utilize the space given to cars. We also created a kids’ art studio so families could be involved, and a flower/gift market filled with local crafters goods. You could also do a bookdrive collection, and create your own small bookstore as well with what is collected. You don’t have to get overly elaborate with your product offerings. For the cafe, we only offered coffee out of pump urns that we brewed onsite…a local pastry shop came by and freely gave us scones, muffins, and more to help. We put as many local products as we could in each of the shops.

- Include as many people-friendly aesthetics. We worked with a local props warehouse to bring in planters to help divide the street, and temporary street lighting. You can also build your own planters from old pallets, build sandwich boards. We also strung bailing wire between the buildings at 15? high (above a semi-trucks lowest clearance), and attached old Christmas lights to help provide more ambiance.

- Paint your own cycle track! You can use a lime green paint in the typical parking area and paint a 5? stripe. It’s also good to add a 2? buffer zone (painted white diagonal lines) to allow for adjacent parking/door zone clearance

- Invite artists to perform in the street. Music is a key component to having an exciting street. Use a guitar amplifier and pump out tracks from an iPod, or invite DJ’s, drum circles, et cetera.

- Remember that people want a reason to stay and be apart of the environment. Be sure to provide plenty of seating, things to read (maps, build simple kiosks to use as community boards, food/drink). Chess boards, et cetera. Print out and post the story of the block (its history, its present, its future as a neighborhood place).

- Promote throughout the neighborhood, city, and more. Send fliers to local universities, schools, and more.

- You’ll more than likely need a permit to close a portion of the street. We specifically asked to allow one lane of vehicle traffic so that residents could see that a “complete street” that allowed all modes of transit was a viable solution. Had we simply blocked off the entire street, the message would not have been conveyed as well.

- Invite your Mayor, council members, city staff, so they can see the possibilities for themselves. Be sure to track sales to show the increase in area business (potential for increased tax revenue is a city’s largest motivator for change), and spotlight how traffic slows but people still have easy access and come out.

If you read the Dallas Morning News late last week, you probably picked up on an item that Go Oak Cliff is helping put together…Dallas’ first Streets to Plaza conversion. We’re still outlining plans and developing the project, but since the cat is out of the bag we wanted to reveal a bit more about the effort. For those who may be unfamiliar with our past projects, Go OC created a “Better Block” initiative where we took an area of old buildings with high vehicle traffic and turned it into a European styled walkable block, complete with temporary coffee shop, flower/gift market, kids’ art spaces, fruit stands, bike lanes, and cafe seating. Much to our surprise, the success of that project resonated nationwide and queued up the potential for a series of other projects we’ll be unveiling shortly. For starters, we looked at the massive success of San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program and New York City’s plaza conversions, and identified areas throughout historic Oak Cliff that could benefit from a similar treatment. In NYC, the projects they’ve unveiled have used simple and inexpensive materials like paint and bollards to stamp the area as pedestrian or bicycle only. As the DMN article notes, we found a dangerous intersection in NOC where South bound traffic runs directly into a one-way street and gives drivers a major blind spot due to an old building blocking sightlines. We’re now working with the city to develop a “demonstration plaza” to test the idea for three months. If successful, the project will turn permanent giving Dallas its first stake in the ground at reclaiming its streets.

The beauty of the project is not only the reclamation of the streets, but NYC is seeing traffic injuries plummet where they’ve installed these, making the public space not only more inviting to families and residents, but also safer.
Surrounding businesses are also booming thanks to the allowance for greater foot traffic (something we also saw at Better Block)…and of course, as Jane Jacobs noted, the heightened number of people out creates more “eyes on the street” which lowers area crime.

This type of neighborhood vision and simple activism can easily transform an area without having to drag in all the tedium and frustration of government bodies and grants.  All it takes is willing landlords, a couple of permits, and most importantly enthusiasm and passion.

Article by Stephen Dare